Book review: “Truman G. Madsen’s “Joseph Smith the Prophet”

Motivation and connections

I have been doing some hard reading lately that has sparked some changes in my own thinking, as well as resulted in some heated arguments with family and friends. I still want to continue to ask hard questions. But I wanted to take a moment to read something familiar, comfortable, devotional in nature. I had just finished watching Hamilton on Independence Day, and this passage struck me from By Common Consent’s reflections on the musical:

Isn’t this kind of sympathetic idealization, which is really a kind of idolization, basically kind of wrong? Don’t we want to avoid getting all romantic about those who stand before us in leadership positions? Aren’t we obliged to respond to any kind of hero-worship, however wistfully expressed, with thorough-going critique, if not outright rejection? Shouldn’t we be iconoclasts, tearing down images which presume to situate some felt ideal in the body of some invariably flawed (and, unfortunately often in our history of public statuary, affirmatively racist and criminal) person?

It’s a good article, and I highly recommend reading it. My simple answer is yes: we should be very wary of hero-worship, for the very fact we may choose to refuse to see the flaws and learn. But we can respect those in our past, even honor them, for putting us on a course to where we are today. Speaking of flawed characters, I chose to pick up Truman G. Madsen’s Joseph Smith the Prophet. I had listened to the lectures before. My dad listened to them very often growing up, even if I wasn’t usually listening. He could quote passages of the tapes by heart. I did finally sit down and listen to them from beginning to end on my mission, but that has been close to ten years ago now. I also had a suspicion the book contained a quote I had not ever been able to track down. There was a quote that had to do with handling criticism– of which Joseph had plenty– something to do with taking the part that was true, and not letting the rest bother you. I will assure you here– I found the passage. For sake of continuity, I will quote it here:

*[A woman] came to visit the prophet. She felt she had been maligned unjustly by gossip. Regarding such matters, Joseph would say, “The little foxes spoil the vines- little evils do the most damage in the Church.” He also said, “The devil flatters us that we are very righteous, when we are feeding on the faults of others.”

But this sister had been troubled, and she came and asked for redress: she wanted the Prophet to go to the person who was the source of the story and properly take care of it. He enquired of her in some detail and then counseled her in terms something like this: “Sister, when I have heard of a story about me [and he could have said there had been many], I sit down and think about it and pray about it, and I ask myself the question, ‘Did I say something or was there something about my manner to give some basis for the story to start?’ And, Sister, often if I think about it long enough I realize I have done something to give that basis. And there wells up in me a forgiveness of the person who has told that story, and a resolve that I will never do that thing again.”

I don’t know why, but that story had stuck in my memory for so long as being utterly and completely true. I am very sensitive about what others think of me. As a teenager in high school, I made myself miserable worrying over the opinions of others. I still struggle with it, keeping myself up at night wondering if the way I said something came off wrong, or trying to parse out what someone thought of me during an interview or exchange. I would like to be able to let that go. This is the ideal I would like to live up to. Granted, Joseph Smith himself didn’t– he burned down a printing press because he didn’t like the slander they were printing about him. But the quote itself was one that changed the way I think, and I consider it my truth.

Two-sentence summary

In the course of eight lectures, Madsen displays the character and disposition of the prophet Joseph Smith through recollections of those who knew him and his own words. You get the impression that Madsen knows Joseph very well through primary sources, and while it is devotional in nature, it is also well backed up with sources and has the imprint of a scholar.

How it has impacted my thinking

After reading Saints, I was talking about it with my dad. My dad was a good way through the book himself, but he was having a hard time getting through it because it clashed so much with his image of the Brother Joseph. They left out all the personal anecdotes, and left with an ambiguous portrait of the prophet’s character. My dad’s vision of Joseph Smith is the picture painted by Madsen. I think there is truth in Madsen’s portrayal. I also think Saints had a different purpose. It had a larger scope that a personal biography of Joseph Smith, trying to include characters that have been left out of our telling of the Restoration. It also had to fully address the critiques of the prophet that are often left out of devotional works. Saints was doing a lot of work, and good work at that. I think my dad’s attitude could best be summarized in the words of Wilford Woodruff when faced with critiques of the prophet: Joseph Smith was “like a bed of gold concealed from human view,” and that, as with Enoch’s, only God could comprehend his soul.

In addition to the quote above, there are things I value highly about Joseph Smith. One of my favorites is Terryl Given’s comment that Smith’s prophetic practice was neither the unstudied and erratic plagiarism of his caricaturists nor always the epiphany-driven receipt of “vertical revelation imputed to him by his devoted followers… Smith viewed himself as both revelator and inspired synthesist, pulling together truths not only from heaven but also from his culture, his background, and his contemporaries… Smith believed himself to be an oracle of God, subject to moments of heavenly encounter and the pure flow of inspiration. But he was also insatiably eclectic in his borrowings and adaptations, with an adventuresome mind, prone to speculation and fully comfortable with the trial and error of intellectual effort.”

This is perhaps a different Joseph than that portrayed in Madsen’s book that emphasizes the “vertical revelation” Givens references here. In one passage, Madsen recalls how Joseph dictated D&C 132:

It is a long revelation– sixty-six verses, many of which are themselves long. Verse 19, for example, is over two hundred words. Some of the verses describe the conditions of the everlasting covenant in such terms as an attorney might use who had spent days thinking up every possible synonym, nuance, and contingency so that no loophole would remain. For example: “All covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations, oaths, vows, performances, connections, associations, or expectations, that are not made and entered into and ….” That’s the subject of the sentence. Then there’s the verb. Then a very long predicate. To have written that after patient winnowing of the dictionary would be an achievement. Joseph Smith dictated it straight and, apparently, without a change. That is amazing enough. But then we learn from William Clayton that the Prophet declared that “he knew the revelation perfectly, and could rewrite it at any time if necessary. Now, that is staggering!

But there are other passages that clearly align with an eclectic synthesist: We should gather up all the good and true principles in the world, and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true Mormons! I would make that my own motto!

There were other passages that made me uncomfortable though, for instance this exchange that sounds autocratic:

Josiah Quincy, later mayor of Boston, said to him, “You have too much power.” Joseph replied, according to Quincy: “In your hands or that of any other person, so much power would, no doubt, be dangerous. I am the only man in the world whom it would be safe to trust with it.” Then five words spoken as a “rich, comical aside,” Quincy says: “Remember, I am a prophet!” And he was.

Apparently that line from D&C 21, We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. — apparently, he was the exception. I would doubt that. I didn’t like Joseph’s over reliance on two things: secrecy and complete loyalty. For instance, this passage:

The Prophet said that “there should exist the greatest freedom and familiarity among the rulers of Zion.” This is glorious as an ideal. But it was that very freedom, the openness of heart and soul, the sharing of the most sacred of insights, that some took advantage of and that led to the breakdown and breakup of the School of the Prophets. For what they shared was often so intimate and so sacred that it required an immense amount of self-control to ensure that one understood it properly, or to determine the propriety of mentioning it elsewhere, or not to bandy it about outside the school, or to take advantage of it in someway.

I fully agree that there is room for intimacy, and there is some things that should not be shared further. But what if this is abused? Polygamy was introduced in secret. Do I have to “understand it properly” first? If it can’t be said or taught in public, why not?

The second point that made me uncomfortable: this exchange with Brigham Young:

The Prophet rebuked Brigham Young from his head to his feet for something he had done, or something he was supposed to have done but hadn’t-the detail is unclear. When he had finished the rebuke, everyone in the room waited for the response. Brigham Young rose to his feet. He was a strong man. He could have responded: “Now, look, haven’t you read that you’re not supposed to rebuke in public, but only in private?” Or, “Brother Joseph, doesn’t it say something in the revelations about persuasion, and long-suffering, and gentleness and meekness?” Or, “You’re dead wrong. It’s not so.” But he said none of the above. In a voice everyone could tell was sincere, he said simply, “Joseph, what do you want me to do?” And the story says that the Prophet burst into tears, came down from the stand, threw his arms around Brigham, and said, in effect, “Brother Brigham, you passed.”

I am all for patience in misunderstanding. I wrote about Pahoran’s response when he was wrongfully accused by Captain Moroni. But the last line changes the whole tone of the exchange for me. You passed! Joseph Smith was giving Brigham Young a test of loyalty to see how he would respond? By setting up a fake scenario?

I find wisdom in Joseph’s words, and I consider him a prophet of God. As a tenet of my faith, I believe he did restore truth that wasn’t to be found on the earth. But I also believe we do his legacy wrong if we accept everything uncritically. We are a true and living church, we are meant to grow. We haven’t gathered up all the truth there is to be found. And I think Joseph’s character is strong enough to stand up to critical inspection. Madsen’s book is a beautiful portrayal of the prophet that I think captures the spirit of the man. To reference Hamilton again, Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

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